The issues that made Ted Cruz and the tea party movement the unbridled future of conservative American politics no longer motivate the GOP base, according to some of the senator’s closest allies.
So Cruz, 47, is embracing a new route to appeal to his party’s voters this fall — leaning on the policies and popularity of his one-time nemesis, President Donald Trump.
Cruz and Trump attacked each other bitterly during the 2016 fight for the GOP Republican presidential nomination. Cruz was one of the last Republican candidates to endorse Trump for the general election.
Now headed into a re-election race where polls show Cruz up just single-digits over Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the senator is campaigning hard for many of Trump’s top policy priorities — while Cruz’s own brand of GOP politics is garnering significantly less enthusiasm among the party faithful.
“The issue set has changed,” said David McIntosh, president of the conservative Club for Growth, one of the top financiers of Cruz’s past and current campaigns.
Despite years of campaigning successfully by promoting smaller government, less federal spending, and an enforceable debt ceiling under President Barack Obama, McIntosh said the Republican Party shifted its focus in the 2016 cycle, “to immigration [and] trade to some extent among the grassroots base.”
Cruz has been a leading messenger for his party’s priorities, dropping in to help his colleagues turn out GOP faithful during their campaigns.
“We’ve never had a president that stood for the little person,” said Joni Jack, a small business owner and Cruz supporter who attended the senator’s campaign event in Smithville, Texas, last month. “I got to see [Trump] speak [in D.C.] last June… I cried through his entire speech, it was such an honor.”
Veterans of Cruz’s own political movement are less enthusiastic these days.
Gathered for a policy summit at the Sheraton Hotel in Austin last month, roughly 300 diehard fiscal conservatives were still sorting out their place in Trump’s Republican Party.
While Cruz and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott spent valuable campaign time addressing the Resurgent Gathering, hosted by conservative radio host and former Trump-critic Erick Erickson, other Texas Republicans steered clear of an event with ties to the #nevertrump movement.
“You have the always Trumpers and the never Trumpers,” said Texas Republican strategist Drew Ryun, whose grassroots group Madison Project was among the first to formally endorse Cruz in his 2012 primary.
“You also have some of the never Trumpers who are realizing Donald Trump’s doing some great things,” added Ryun, who puts himself in the third category, and runs a political technology company that does work for the Republican National Committee.
To survive in Trump’s party, Cruz and his old allies have adjusted their strategy for courting Republicans.
“We test messages that say, ‘Support the Club for Growth because we’re supporting the president on his tax cut bill,’” said McIntosh, whose group spent millions attacking Trump in the presidential primary on behalf of Cruz, before endorsing Trump for the general election against Democrat Hillary Clinton.
This year the Club’s ads have attacked candidates as insufficiently loyal to Trump’s agenda, though McIntosh said the Club still holds the same policy values.
“On immigration we’re agnostic, we don’t engage on that issue,” McIntosh added of Trump’s top priorities. “The [direct mail fundraiser] tells me ‘I wish you would because I could raise you a lot of money on that.’”
Cruz’s stump speech has grown increasingly Trump-centric over the course of the tightening race against O’Rourke.
The senator dedicates significant time to contrasting their vastly different views on border security and immigration — as well as framing the contest as a means to protect the president.
“[O’Rourke] has said categorically he would vote yes to impeach Trump today, right now,” Cruz warned supporters at a rally in The Colony, Texas, in August.
It’s a stark change from the Cruz of two months ago, who told supporters in Waco his plan for exciting Republican voters was putting “points on the board” for their agenda, including pushing GOP Senate leaders to revisit conservative policy fights such as repealing Obamacare and enacting additional tax cuts before the election.
Last month Cruz skipped Senate votes for a week to spend more time in Texas campaigning.
His event in The Colony opened with a big-screen video of O’Rourke defending football players who kneel during the national anthem.
“My job politically, our job politically as a campaign is to ensure that common-sense and freedom loving Texans show up,” Cruz told the Star-Telegram in an interview after the event.
Speaking to a sparsely-filled conference room of some of his most loyal supporters at the gathering in Austin, Cruz sought to bring along some Republicans who remain skeptical of that strategy, highlighting conservative accomplishments like judicial confirmations, regulatory rollbacks and tax reform under Trump.
“There’s dissidence between the insanity of [Trump’s] political fights, the tweets back and forth, the insults… and then the substance of what we’re getting done,” reasoned Cruz, who Trump savaged over Twitter during the presidential contest. “I think the substance of what we’re getting done is really remarkable.”
Cruz also warned Republicans to put aside their differences within their party ahead of tough November elections, or risk losing some of the policies battles they’d fought for in the past six years.
“All it takes for us to lose is Democratic turnout to go up five to 10 [percentage] points, and Republican turnout either to stay steady or go down slightly,” warned Cruz. “This whole state could flip blue, like that.”
The approach still frightens some of Cruz’s allies, who distrust Trump and worry fear his popularity could wane between now and the senator’s November re-election.
“I think the message was unanimously: Back the president because this is good enough, unfortunately,” said one Texas Republican strategist in attendance who requested anonymity because of the clients he works for. “We’ll stick to those lines and hope that in November... the president has kept himself out of enough of his personal hot water that we’re fine.”